Cereal With 70% Sugar Hooks Kids on Junk-Food Bliss Point

Cereal With 70% Sugar Hooks Kids on Junk-Food Bliss Point

After E. coli from a burger paralyzed 22-year-old Stephanie Smith, Michael Moss’s newspaper story tracing the meat’s origins helped win him a Pulitzer Prize in 2010.

The titular villains of Moss’s new book, “Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us,” aren’t much less malign. The three substances are tied to rising obesity, diabetes, hypertension and heart disease. They’re also the pillars on which the $1 trillion food-manufacturing industry is built.

Moss, a New York Times reporter, digs into the history, science, commerce and politics behind processed foods and Americans’ addiction to them. It’s a craving he tracks from lab bench and corporate memo to working moms and the mantra of convenience, from Wall Street’s relentless pressure for profit and the feckless regulators in Washington.

Moss makes the digestion of hard facts easier with a keen sense of the telling anecdote and detail. When he interviews the legendary Al Clausi in 2010, 64 years after he started as a food chemist for General Foods (MO), Moss observes a copy of the patent for Jell-O instant pudding hanging in the retiree’s office and on a shelf “a toy replica of the trucks that delivered Tang, another one of his iconic inventions.”

The book is divided into three main sections, starting with sugar. “There are special receptors for sweetness in every one of the mouth’s ten thousand taste buds,” all wired to the brain’s pleasure zones. Food scientists can determine a product’s “bliss point,” “the precise amount of sweetness” that makes it most enjoyable.

Sweet Cereal

Competition explains a cereal called Super Orange Crisps that was found in 1975 to have sugar content of 70.8 percent. The susceptibility of kids explains the heavy advertising on weekend daytime TV.

“It’s not that food companies are teaching children to like sweetness,” Moss writes. “Rather, they are teaching children what foods should taste like. And increasingly, this curriculum has been all about sugar.”

Scientists have shown that fat is as potent as sugar in lighting up the brain’s pleasure center. One difference between the two is that fat has no bliss point after which the appeal drops.

For the subjects in experiments “with increasingly fatty mixtures” of cream, milk and sugar, the fat “was so pleasing to their brains that they never gave the signal to stop eating.”

Crunchy Chips

Combine that with the utility of fat. “The processed food industry relies on it like no other component,” Moss writes, and then rolls out a dozen swell functions, such as: “Fat turns listless chips into crunchy marvels, parched breads into silky loaves, drab lunchmeat into savory delicatessen.”

Cheese and red meat are the worst culprits for saturated fat. And one reason cheese consumption in the U.S. has tripled since the 1970s is the government’s helping hand. Moss devotes a long chapter to showing how the U.S. Department of Agriculture waffles on nutritional guidance while promoting consumption of meat and cheese.

When hypertension made headlines in the 1980s as the “silent killer,” Americans were eating 10 to 20 times the amount of sodium their bodies needed. People continue to crave salt, and processed-food makers oblige them, not least because salt is another useful ingredient. “It makes sugar taste sweeter. It adds crunch to crackers,” Moss writes.

Hungry Man

The food makers’ occasional efforts to reduce salt have been half-hearted and uneven. So you still have the Hungry Man frozen roast turkey dinner, with salt listed nine times among the ingredients for a total of 5,400 milligrams. That’s more than two days of the maximum recommended amount.

Moss’s 3 1/2 years of labor on the book included immersing himself in the 81 million pages of documents that became available with the 1998 tobacco settlement and offered revelations about the huge food manufacturers — Kraft (KRFT), General Foods (MO) and Nabisco (MO) — which R.J. Reynolds (RAI) and Philip Morris (PM) had owned at different times.

The book is occasionally dense, though leavened with color and humor. The structure, which offers mini-histories of the unholy trinity, lends itself to some repetition and chronological seesawing. The science and history can be fun; the message is anything but.

Don’t be put off, though. “Salt Sugar Fat” is a vital document for anyone whose ignorance in the area is proportionate to his waistline.

“Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us” is published by Random House in the U.S. and W.H. Allen in the U.K. (446 pages, $28, 20 pounds). To order this book in North America, click here.

(Jeffrey Burke is an editor with Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Muse highlights include John Mariani on wine and Greg Evans on TV.

To contact the writer on the story: Jeffrey Burke in New York at jburke21@bloomberg.net.

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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